Missing the P-Point

Opinions - September 18th, 2009

by Ian de Stains OBE

I am frequently invited to give talks—usually, but not always, on the Anglo- Japanese relationship—and I am invariably asked if I can provide my PowerPoint presentation in advance. People react with disbelief when I tell them I do not have such a presentation. I tell them that since they have invited me to be their speaker, I would rather the audience listen to what I have to say than read what I might create on slides. An audience will do one or the other; it can’t do both.

As a presenter, you have to decide what you want from your audience. Do you really want to communicate with them—which means interacting—or do you simply want to give them information? If it is the latter, you were best to write a document and send it by email.

Slides have their place—sometimes. But only if they are there to support what the speaker is saying. All too often the slides are simply bullet points listing what the speaker is saying, and at worst, the speaker will himself use them as a prompt for his speech, sometimes even turning his back on the audience, the better to read what’s on the slide. This is sincerely not to be recommended.

Garr Reynolds (author of the masterful book Presentation Zen) refers to “death by PowerPoint,” and I think we can all empathize. Slide after slide packed with information (largely unintelligible) with entirely random animations (usually just because the program allows them; ditto fonts) and no thought given to the basic elements of design: color, balance, harmony, and the need for white space. I recently had the misfortune to moderate a conference breakout session where one of the speakers proudly announced that for his 10 minute presentation he had 32 slides. The only thing they managed to communicate was confusion and, not surprisingly, when it came to the discussion period, few of those in the audience related to him, choosing instead to call on the second speaker, who had used no visuals at all but whose message had been crystal clear.

I sometimes coach people in presentation skills, and I begin from the premise that your job as a presenter is to communicate an idea or series of ideas. In other words, you have to tell a story. In the beginning, I do not allow anyone to use visual aids. The focus is on being able to communicate effectively. If what they ultimately need to present requires illustration (for example data—and remember, if that’s the case, it’s not the data that’s important but what the data means), I get them first to use a notebook and colored pens to create a storyboard. Programs like PowerPoint are not nearly as effective as these basic tools when it comes to being creative. Hard to believe? Just give it a try; you might surprise yourself. Better still, you might surprise your audience.

Ian de Stains is the Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.